Prelude-to-a-Wholesome-Evening

If there is a lesson to be learned from Nymphomaniac, it’s that it does not pay to piss off Lars von Trier.  Lucky number thirteen in the melancholy Dane’s filmography is both a paradoxically satisfying conclusion to his self-styled Depression Trilogy and a cheekily specific rebuttal to the European liberals who declared him persona non grata at the Cannes Film Festival 2011.

The comment that got von Trier kicked out is worth repeating in its entirety:

“What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews. I am of course very much for Jews, no not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass, but still how can I get out of this sentence.”

Not exactly politically correct, but if you find yourself straining to think of exactly what political correctness has accomplished for the people it supposedly protects, you might agree with me that it was highly “inappropriate” to respond by expelling von Trier from the festival.  In the immediate aftermath of the controversy, he muttered something about France not understanding Denmark’s sense of humor, but by now it should be clear that he has been planning something more powerful all along.  It’s possible to read the entirety of Nymphomaniac as a response not only to the events at Cannes, but to political correctness in all its vacuous forms, to the thin veneer of respectability that disguises and enables something much, much nastier. Von Trier’s worldview is notoriously bleak, and this film is no exception: he apologizes for his faux pas by admitting to a psychosis.

The psychosis of Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is ostensibly sex addiction, but it might more accurately be termed indifference to anything that isn’t sex.  In flashback after neatly chaptered flashback, we see her discover orgasm, develop a habit, and go to increasingly extreme lengths to get her fix.  It’s one of the great mysteries of Nymphomaniac whether Joe’s theory that she’s a sex addict because “I’ve always wanted more out of sunsets” proves that she’s superhuman in her quest for higher forms of beauty and happiness, or subhuman in her inability to appreciate the things that everybody else enjoys.  In part, this ambiguity von Trier’s choice to tell his story in first-person flashbacks.  There are two kinds of narrators: the wide-eyed tabula rasa forever exemplified by Lemuel Gulliver, and the unreliable trickster who shows up in nearly all of Roth and Nabokov.  After spending more than four hours with Joe, I’m still unsure which type she is, though the winking references to Scheherazade, the Wife of Bath, and Keyser Söze may be pointing me in the right direction.

The film begins with a version of the modern welfare state fantasy: the wealthy, educated social elite, Seligman (played to almost-creepy perfection by Stellan Skarsgård), quite literally takes the poor and suffering Joe off the streets, beds and feeds her, and tries to make her well in the head.  Seligman is an odd, lonely type, who enjoys reading almost as much as his guest enjoys screwing; when he admits that he’s a virgin (“an innocent”), it merely confirms our suspicions.  He listens patiently to Joe’s story, never judging her harshly, always finding a cozy connection between her experiences and his (the funniest of which involves the Fibonacci sequence and the number of thrusts she endures from one of her suitors).  If von Trier, who pulled off a big, sweeping allegory with Dogville, wants Seligman to represent bourgeois niceness and complacency, he’ll quickly tear apart everything his character stands for – not always fairly, but entertainingly.

Doing so will involve a lot of intertextuality.  Von Trier’s work has become increasingly allusive as he’s strayed further and further from his Dogme 95 roots, (in the first five minutes of Melancholia alone, he managed to squeeze in Tarkovsky, Wagner, Freud, Resnais, Thomas Chatterton, and Bruegel the Elder), and here he seems fixated, appropriately enough, on the French literary theorists (I’m interested to know what Slavoj Žižek thinks of this film).  Consider, for instance, the first and last thirty seconds of the film, a black screen accompanied with sound.  Onto this nothingness the viewer can project whatever she wants to see – perhaps it’s fair to say that von Trier uses precisely this scenario whenever he’s talking about compassion and the soul.  In the first part of Nymphomaniac, a study of love, Joe falls for the loutish Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) without really understanding why.  There’s a revealing moment when she’s sitting on a train, trying to remember what the love of her life looks like, and her mind flashes to a black silhouette.  Slowly, she reconstructs his appearance, using bits of the passengers around her – someone’s nose, another’s eyebrows, another’s hands.  In von Trier’s universe, love isn’t the attachment between two like souls.  Joe’s partner remains unknowable, a black screen that she can interpret however she pleases.

In the most telling moment in the entire film, Joe enlists an African man to have sex with her, only to discover that he’s brought his friend along.  Surreally, the men don’t acknowledge Joe at all, arguing with each other even as they penetrate her, and failing to notice when she walks out of the room.  It’s a strange, literal way of illustrating René Girard’s famous proclamation that “there is always a third person in the room”; human beings don’t choose what they want freely, but merely want whatever their peers want.  For von Trier, desiring a woman isn’t about the woman herself, but rather the jealous competition with other men. Sure enough, jealousy is everywhere in this film, since any man who wants to have sex with Joe must wait in line, so to speak, with the others.  The only character who seems immune from the emotion is Joe herself.  Whether her numbness makes her weak or powerful – immune to desire, or its ultimate victim – is another question entirely.

At the same time as he is savaging the myth of love, von Trier entertains the hypothesis that the soul isn’t something one is born with, but something that must be strived for.  Even if he doesn’t fully believe it, it’s this Romantic notion that gives Nymphomaniac its structure.  Though Joe seems careless when she tells her story to Seligman, we sense that her entire life is progressing toward some moment of catharsis.  But this idea, too, may be a welfare state fantasy, the bourgeois faith in progress and self-improvement.  Von Trier has always hated the middle classes, and it’s interesting to compare Uma Thurman, cast as a spluttering housewife, with the twisted, kleptomaniacal in-laws from Melancholia, or the sadistic old lady Lauren Bacall played in Dogville.  Ordinary people are always the most dangerous in his films; we see this most clearly in Part Two when Joe attends a therapy group, so painful in its cloying political correctness (“we don’t say ‘nymphomaniac,’ we say ‘sex addict’”) that I found myself thinking of Nurse Ratched.  When Joe stands up in the middle of the meeting and reveals that she’s too strong to be reduced to a sniveling patient, I’ll admit that I cheered.

This is where von Trier’s critique of Cannes progressivism begins to hit home.  There are points throughout the film when the characters seem to be speaking directly to von Trier’s moral detractors, articulating the fallacies of political correctness and the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism (some of these moments are a little harder to spot, like Jerome’s father’s distaste for traveling, surely a reference to von Trier’s real-life fear of flying).  Normality, respectability, and politeness are always suspect. The biggest horror in the entire film comes toward the end when Seligman, the forgiving liberal, excuses Joe for all the lives she’s ruined, writing everything off as Freudianism and feminism.  In spite of myself (and, perhaps, von Trier’s intentions), I found myself genuinely moved by the tragedy of Nymphomaniac: as soon as radicalism submits to mainstream liberalism, it gets screwed.

Dark though the film’s ending may be, it’s not right to say that von Trier celebrates nihilism and rejects the myth of the soul.  To better explain how he sees things, we might borrow from Annie Hall and divide life into the horrible and the miserable.  Mainstream society, with all its hypocrisy and latent cruelty, is horrible. BDSM and abuse are merely miserable, so Joe should feel lucky.  That philosophy might be too harsh for most people, myself included, yet I find something not only therapeutic but empowering in its own right about this film.  Disillusioned with convention of all kinds, the nymphomaniac takes on the role of the hippy, homeless and friendless, but alive as Seligman will never be.  As we might expect, von Trier leaves misery out of the technical side of his film, which is more beautiful to look at than Melancholia and more cleverly plotted than Breaking the Waves.  Studios have split the film into two two-hour volumes, from which some of the more controversial content has obviously been cut (the obviousness bothered me at first, but somehow it seems more honest than smoothing out every edit to near-invisibility).  When von Trier releases the full, five-hour version, I plan on watching it, to be shocked, fascinated and yes, entertained.